Friday, May 23, 2014

He Had The Right Stuff - But Never Went Into Space

I'm only learning today of John C. Houbolt's passing on April 15th of this year, at age 95.  John who?  Possibly the most important visionary in the Apollo program, he's hardly known at all, but every fan of Apollo knows his biggest contribution.  Houbolt (rhymes with cobalt) designed the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous mission profile and and invented the idea of the lunar module to land on the moon.  While he did not claim to originate the idea (it's not clear who did, nor when), he championed it and made the case as often as he could, despite severe pushback and organizational objections.
EE Times put it this way:
You may wonder, "What's the big deal?" But it's a big deal for several reasons. At the time he worked on it, there had not even been any manned orbital flights around Earth, let alone vehicle rendezvous and docking, and certainly none around the moon. No one knew if such a complex set of maneuvers was possible in basic Earth orbit; to do it around the Moon seemed impossible. Orbital mechanics and navigation are quite difficult and unforgiving, especially when you are so clearly fuel-limited. (It was so complicated that Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11's lunar module pilot, did his MIT dissertation on the mechanics of orbital rendezvous.) 

The conventional wisdom, supported by Wernher von Braun and on down at NASA, was that a moon landing would consist of a rocket launch from Earth, a brief stop for an Earth-orbit rendezvous, and then going directly to a moon landing, discarding stages along the way. The last stage would "back down" to the Moon and land gently upright, as you have seen in all those classic movies of the 1950s (such as Destination Moon). Return to Earth would require a lift-off of that final stage from the Moon's surface for a non-stop, direct trip home. [Bold added: SiG]
Houbolt did his assessment of the direct-to-moon-and-back mission requirements and concluded it just couldn't be done when you included all of the weight, fuel and risk issues.  The rocket Von Braun envisioned for the moon landings (called Nova) was twice the size of the Saturn V, still the largest, most powerful vehicle ever created - and remember, this was before the first Saturn I was even built.  With Von Braun and all of NASA aligned against him, but convinced his math was right, he was a tireless advocate for the rendezvous approach.  It was then that Houbolt took an extremely unconventional approach and wrote a 9-page private letter to the Associate Director of NASA, Dr. Robert Seamans.  Houbolt wrote:
"Do we want to go to the moon or not?" the Langley engineer asked. "Why is Nova, with its ponderous size simply just accepted, and why is a much less grandiose scheme involving rendezvous ostracized or put on the defensive? I fully realize that contacting you in this manner is somewhat unorthodox," Houbolt admitted, "but the issues at stake are crucial enough to us all that an unusual course is warranted." Houbolt clearly saw that the giant Nova rocket and the expensive and complex Earth orbit rendezvous plan were clearly not a realistic option--especially if the mission was to be accomplished anywhere close to President Kennedy's timetable. While conducting a rendezvous in orbit around the Moon was going to be a challenge, the weight, cost and savings of using LOR were obvious once one realized that LOR was not fundamentally much more difficult than Earth orbit rendezvous.
With the ability to design a lander that didn't need to survive earth's gravity and was used and discarded, one piece at a time, the Lunar Excursion Module could be made lightweight, a spindly little craft saving precious weight and fuel every step of the way.  That scaled the massive Nova back to being a single Saturn V, and probably enabled the moon landings more than any other thing.  

It has been said that fame is a fickle mistress; in terms of his contributions to the Apollo program, John Houbolt should be a household name.  Such fame rarely comes to guys like John Houbolt and  they generally prefer it that way; Tony Stark is a fictional character, after all.  But in the history of manned space exploration, Houbolt is among the true giants. 


  1. What a terrific story.

    Thank you; linked at WRSA.


  2. I really enjoyed reading this - thanks!

  3. Spindly, indeed. I once read the hull of the lunar lander wasn't much thicker than a beer can.

    It worked and the human race triumphed.

  4. From another old silicon greybeard, who remembers those days... Thank you.
    Yes, we used to say WE CAN. Now, we invent excuses, after spending ourselves into oblivion.

    We should have been on Mars already. We could have devoted the shuttle to that mission instead of the ISS. Alas, now we can't even get to it without a Russian hitchhike.

    Yes, we will need to remember...

  5. Putin say: "No hitchhike for you, Yankee imperialist, no rocket engines, and Greater Russia now owns the ISS".

    Yep, for the money we spent on the 2003-2014 wars, we could have the SPACE:1999 moonbase mining helium and selling us hard vacuum down here on Terra. More likely, Heinlein's Luna Prison with near-sentient Mycroft.

  6. It would have been interesting to see how the opposition would have solved the problem. I'm having some trouble even imagining something that much bigger than the Saturn V. A rocket engine 2X the F-1, much less a structure capable of holding enough fuel to achieve escape velocity, and strong enough to survive the return trip? I'd think it wouldn't take more than 30 minutes with a slipstick to render that particular Plan A infeasible.

  7. This was depicted in episode 5 ("Spider") of the 1998 HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon. It's amazing what lengths they went to shave every ounce off of those spacecraft.

    with Reed Birney as John Houbolt, Alan Ruck as Tom Dolan, and Dann Florek as Robert Seamans

    PS -- like others, I found this article via Western Rifle Shooters Association

  8. pdx - yeah but think about how much money has been wasted on lbj's "great society" since 1964. Makes that war spending waste trivial.

  9. Lots of good comments overnight - after I went off to noodle on my favorite guitar for a while. Anon 0833, and others from WRSA who don't know me, thanks for dropping by. I've been reading CA regularly since '09 or so, and I think we're pretty much in agreement in where things are heading in this country and the world. My focus has been more on the "somebody has to rebuild" side rather than getting through the unpleasantness because I can contribute to the rebuilding discussion, but not much to the areas WRSA cover.

    In no particular order, the alternative design was going to be ambitiously (absurdly?) huge. The Saturn V first stage was 33' in diameter; the Nova was 50'. The Nova would have a cluster of 8 F1 engines instead of 5, according to this Wikipedia article.

    In one of my early jobs, I worked with an older Mechanical Engineer whose first job was at Grumman during the Lunar Module program. He was involved in a tiger team (like the one depicted in Apollo 13) when one of the astronaut tripped on a cable and broke it out of the ALSEP. FWIW, he said even beer cans at that time weren't as thin as the skin of the LEM, in places.

    As Pipermichael said, we should have been on Mars by now, and I recall being fairly sure we would be as a teen back in the days of the Apollo program. I fully expected colonies on the moon and missions to Mars by now. I read the other day that all of Apollo cost $100 billion, adjusted for inflation. Cheap - about 3 days of our current yearly deficit for 10 years. We've put trillions in LBJ's great society and done nothing but destroy two or three generations of families.

    The details of how we got to the moon make a really cool story and more people would be interested in that story than know it.

    The big, big difference between then and now is cultural. NASA is an arthritic bureaucracy afraid to to do anything new, but not afraid to try scare tactics to get more money (for example, global warmening, or solar flares). Back then, NASA was about exploration and doing new things. Remember, spaceflight was essentially invented in the late 1950s and '60s. Concepts existed, but nothing had actually been done, and we all know the difference between theory and practice is greater in practice than the difference between theory and practice is in theory.

  10. Yep, he truly SHOULD have his name in the major history books. As one that grew up following the whole Mercury, Gemini, Apollo program, I'd actually heard of him. And I 'believe' Alan Shepard mentioned him in a speech at the Naval Aviation Museum when he gave a speech there on the moon shots.

  11. Old NFO, one of the links I didn't include last night is to an article by James Oberg who says that at the NASA space museum where the moon program is documented, there are two statues: Alan Shepard and John Houboult. "... a statue of him stands at a NASA space museum, beside that of Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut. “The two were chosen to represent mankind’s greatest achievement in space, the Apollo 11 moon landing,” Unger explained."

  12. He was from my hometown of Joliet, IL, and the road leading to Joliet Junior College was named "Houbolt Drive" in honor of him.

  13. Great post. Alien mentioned slapsticks, and I wonder how many people realize that this was all worked out on slide rules. I still have my FC 2/83N from years ago and like to amaze the kids with it. Said kids being practically anyone under 60.

  14. And I still have my Giant Economy Size Post "VersaLog".

  15. Mine is a Pickett Model C19-T Microwave Transmission slide rule, but it was bought specifically as a collector's piece. I used a slide rule in high school and in my first college classes, just as the calculator revolution was starting, but I never had one this nice.

    DrJim and other hams will understand when I say it has the Collins meatball logo on it, and it's marked "Collins Radio Company copyright 1965"

  16. I always had to use (several sheets!) scratch paper when I did serious electronics stuff with my VersaLog.

    Here's the Pickett Museum website:


  17. Thanks Greybeard for putting this up. I got here from CA.

    My Post Versalog never gave up - still works fine 57 years later. Back in the early semiconductor years that slide stick and a book of log tables were my constant companions. The Apollo Program was our finest hour. If memory serves, Lockheed Missile & Space in Sunnyvale was the Prime Contractor on the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). The electronics were mostly if not all discrete components. I ran the computer diode marketing desk at TI in Dallas. We provided the switching diodes and other semi-conductors used in all parts of the Program. I spent several years running back and forth from Lockheed to Grumman and other aerospace companies of the era. In retrospect, those were the glory years and a testament to American ingenuity.

  18. The right stuff is still there. The recent double mission to Mars, landing a craft and doing extensive exploration was about the best unmanned mission imaginable. This attitude of trashing what's going on now is a new ideology of defeat and pessimism. Granted, Obama is about the worst toxin ever to infect US politics, and the Democrats frankly really need to be culled, penned, and slaughtered in wonderfully painful ways so America can get back on track. If the Democrats are not defeated and utterly destroyed and buried in lime then the late great USA is done for. No half-measures will cut it.